Whatever the outcome of the Arab Spring, one early casualty is already evident–Europe’s fabled system of border-free travel spanning 25 countries from the Balkans to the Baltic. Roman tantrums over an alleged “human tsunami”, a “biblical exodus” across the Mediterranean from North Africa to the heel of Italy as well as Gallic truculence in asserting control of France’s national borders have forced a radical rethink.
In Brussels last week the European Commission responded to the revolutionary upheavals to the south and pressure from Paris and Rome by proposing more “Fortress Europe” and giving countries greater leeway in re-erecting national passport controls.
It’s a storm in a tea cup, but symptomatic of the European zeitgeist–a partial dismantling of one of the biggest boosts to European integration of the past 30 years as European leaders re-assert the primacy of the nation state against Brussels.
The argument for change is that the passport-free system known as the Schengen regime is no longer fit for purpose. It was established in cold war western Europe in 1985 as a Franco-German pact abolishing border controls between them and the countries in between–Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. It is now a very different animal, embracing 400 million people in 25 countries in a globalised world of mass migration.
European asylum, immigration, and refugee policy is a mess, recent years littered with the debris of grand ideas while national governments jealously guard their own sovereign powers over who is allowed in. As recently as 2008 under France’s EU presidency, the talk was of an “immigration pact” with North Africa, of “blue card” schemes to facilitate and control labour migration.
In fact, for years, the EU threw billions at the tyrants in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya–Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Gaddafi–bribing them to stem the flow and to take back unwanted migrants. Now the EU supports the democratic revolutionaries. But as soon as the dust settles in the Maghreb, the old and new regimes will be under intense pressure to take the money and sign up for more repatriation and deportation pacts with Brussels.
Italy has been the progenitor of the current crisis and the biggest loser. Silvio Berlusconi scored an own goal. He outraged the rest of Europe by trying to export the newcomers beyond Italy. Then he signed a letter with Nicolas Sarkozy of France demanding the right to reinstate national border controls in Schengen which would restrict his scope for export.
Compared with the 400,000 Bosnians who fled to Germany from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, 25,000 reaching Italy from Tunisia looks like less than an emergency. Compared to the 80,000 Iraqis admitted to Sweden, ditto (Sweden’s population is 9 million, Italy’s 60 million).
So when Berlusconi demands that the rest of the EU shares Italy’s load, northern Europe shrugs and mutters “crisis, what crisis.” According to the UN refugee agency, Norway took in more asylum-seekers than Italy in the five years to 2010.
In Brussels, immigration has joined the euro single currency as the crisis du jour. The topic will dominate a summit of EU leaders next month. With Angela Merkel declaring the death of “multi-kulti” in Germany, David Cameron accosting the failures of integration in the UK and anti-immigrant and europhobic populists eating away at the mainstream parties in Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Holland, France, Italy, and Austria, the summit will struggle to agree on more than the minimum.
Europe’s current bunch of leaders are long on tactics, short on strategy, following rather than leading public opinion. The mood is fearful and sour. The boat people from north Africa will get the cold shoulder rather than a warm welcome.